Suffering on Sullivant: Part 2

Longtime residents determined to stay on the street they call home

They've been here forever, the Stinsons, in this house on Sullivant Avenue — the one with an American flag, the family dinner-bell triangle hanging from a porch hook, and a spread of comfy-cushioned wicker furniture to welcome family and friends.

The couple have lived in their house just east of South Souder Avenue since 1987. It’s where Don leaves every morning for his job as an electrician. Where Barb returns daily after waitressing at Downtown's Ho Toy Restaurant. Where they raised their three children. Where their six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren visit today.

The Stinsons, both 61 and married for 42 years, admit that their beloved neighborhood maybe hasn't aged as gracefully as they have.

Barb and Don Stinson watch as a prostitute walks by their house on Sullivant Avenue in Franklinton. They have lived in their home for 32 years, raising three children there. They now welcome visits from their six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and don't intend to leave. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]


The Stinsons, both 61 and married for 42 years, admit that their beloved neighborhood maybe hasn't aged as gracefully as they have.

The 3-mile stretch of Sullivant Avenue from Dodge Park near Downtown to Hague Avenue is littered with abandoned, boarded-up homes. Shattered glass and high weeds line the network of alleys often used by prostitutes, victims of human trafficking and johns. Mail carriers, kids and anyone else walking along the street must maneuver crumbling sidewalks or orange barrels where construction workers struggle to keep up with decayed infrastructure.

The businesses are mainly auto body shops, pay-as-you-go cellphone stores, gas stations, used car lots and carryouts or markets with bars across their windows.

“It isn’t necessarily what Sullivant has that hurts it the most. It’s what it doesn’t have,” said Columbus police Sgt. Fred Brophy as he drove an aging cruiser down Sullivant Avenue. “What don’t you see? You don’t see banks. You don’t see grocery stores. You don’t see pizza shops or restaurants.”

Still, the Stinsons stay.

"She's like a rock,” Don Stinson said affectionately about his wife and how she has never wanted to leave. “She sits in one spot and doesn't want to move.”

The history of Sullivant Avenue — one of the first streets in what became known as Columbus — was shaped by its geography. It was named after Lucas Sullivant, who established the original Franklinton settlement in 1797.

Part of it was first called Sullivant's Hill — now known as the Hilltop. The river became a natural barrier that isolated Franklinton from what became the more prosperous Downtown. All those years ago, even Sullivant quickly realized that much of Franklinton was in a flood plain and moved to higher ground.

Those who settled in Franklinton and along Sullivant Avenue had to contend with the flooding often, including a catastrophic storm of 1913 that claimed more than 90 lives in Columbus, many of them in Franklinton.

When the Franklinton floodwall was completed in 2004, many hoped it would turn the economic tide. But the 2008 recession delayed things and the recovery has benefited only some. The areas closest to Downtown on West Broad Street and Rich Street have seen new, high-end developments and a true rebirth, with businesses that give back to the surrounding community and a renewed sense of success and pride. But that prosperity has yet to arrive on Sullivant Avenue, particularly from Central Avenue east toward the freeway and Downtown.

When the Stinsons moved here with their families as pre-teens, Franklinton was a working man's neighborhood where people owned their homes and took pride in them. As home ownership dwindled, they said, crime rose. They saw crack cocaine hit the streets in the 1990s, and prostitution followed. And it has only grown worse over time.

The Stinsons are thankful that the Sullivant corridor was better when they were raising their children. Even so, Barb had a rule that the kids had to be inside when the streetlights went on at dusk.

They worry, now, about what they see as a lack of parental supervision. Barb doesn't leave home to catch a bus for work until 10 a.m. each day and yet, she said, "I see kids everywhere. They don't go to school."

Like so many, she sees the problems on Sullivant as generational: “You just can't let these kids run wild.”

A man walks east on Sullivant Avenue in Franklinton, past boarded-up and abandoned buildings. There are more than 1,000 vacant houses in the three West Side police precincts that are either located on or run through Sullivant Avenue. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

Watchful eyes

The black car with tinted windows slowly circled the elementary school, lurking as the children climbed down the bus steps and headed for the first day of school.

Joe Williams didn’t take his eyes off the car as he stood guard over the playground that early August morning, his two grandchildren running back and forth beneath brewing storm clouds.

“That’s a drug car,” Williams, 58, said. “They are looking for customers.”

On the other side of Burroughs Elementary School, four prostitutes stood on the Sullivant Avenue sidewalk, nodding at the passing cars, hoping they might find customers.

Not even a heavy downpour chased the women away.

Kema Bailey didn’t give the women a second thought as she scrunched under an umbrella with her little brother while walking the fourth-grader to school.

“It’s just part of life where we live down here,” said the 28-year-old. “They need help. We all could use some more help around here.”

Even on the first day of school, life on and around Sullivant Avenue is a sobering reality for residents living in an area that has in many parts disintegrated into a cesspool of poverty, crime and decaying structures.

The despair that so many of the residents on Sullivant live with is confirmed by the numbers.

About one in three people who reside in Franklinton’s 43222 ZIP code or the Hilltop’s 43223 ZIP code lives below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census surveys from 2017.

There are more than 1,000 vacant houses in the three West Side Columbus police precincts that are either located on or run through Sullivant Avenue, according to city code enforcers. In Precinct 19 alone, as of this past January, there were 626 vacant homes, which is the most out of the city's 20 police precincts. And in the census tracts that include the part of Sullivant that is in Franklinton, only about 12% of the population live in owner-occupied homes.

Columbus police data show that officers were dispatched more than 12,400 times to those three precincts in 2018 on reports of disturbances — anything from fights to robberies.

And officers in the Sullivant Avenue corridor responded to 150 reports of indecent exposure (the most in the city), more than 1,100 narcotics complaints and 1,374 reports of shots fired last year.

In 2017 and 2018, Precinct 19, which encompasses the Hilltop, had more homicides than any precinct in the city.

"The whole street’s infested," said the owner of a barbershop on Sullivant Avenue who didn’t want to be identified because he's concerned his business would become a target.

It can be difficult to see customers a second time if they aren't loyal or from the immediate area, he said, because they sit in barber chairs and see what's going on outside the windows. It can be hard to explain, particularly when a customer brings in children, he said.

But advocates say there is plenty of good that happens on the streets off of Sullivant proper. It's just that not enough people notice or talk about that.

"Life on 'Sullivant the street' is much different than life in the 'Sullivant corridor,'" said Judy Box, a real-estate agent, landlord, longtime resident and treasurer of the Franklinton Area Commission who lives closer to Broad Street than to Sullivant.

Box said rebirth on Sullivant doesn't happen because that's not where the market is. She said young couples whom she calls "good Christians, out to change the world" are moving into the corridor, just not onto Sullivant itself. They invest in homes and get involved in the neighborhood. All that matters.

But Sullivant Avenue, she said, might be too far gone.

"You can't fix it. It can't be done," she said. Then reconsidered. "The only way you can fix Sullivant Avenue is to move everyone roaming the streets there somewhere else. And then it just becomes someone else's problem. Fixing it feels a little but like squishing Play-Doh. You squeeze and squeeze and it just slides through your fingers."

A women working the streets walks between two houses on Sullivant Avenue in Franklinton on August 29, 2019. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

Revolving doors

The large front porch of the well-maintained home in the 1700 block of Sullivant Avenue has no furniture.

"You can't keep anything on the front porch,” said William Nicholas Jr. “because they would steal it.”

It's a reality that the 73-year-old Nicholas has adjusted to as his neighborhood has eroded around him.

He and his wife of nearly 49 years, Joann, moved here in 1993. He lost her in August, and he has no plans to move out of the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, many of his longtime neighbors who took pride in their community have either died or fled the area to escape its blight. As they did, the cohesiveness eroded. More houses became rental properties or vacant.

Experts say the diminishing number of longtime residents can have a detrimental effect on areas such as Sullivant Avenue.

"When you have a lot of transients, you have a low level of commitment from residents to fight crime," said Thomas Vander Ven, professor of sociology at Ohio University's Center for Law, Justice and Culture. "These abandoned buildings become criminal warehouses of a sort, prostitution and drug commerce are going to be operating out of these."

When one longtime neighbor passed away, Nicholas began noticing people shuffling in and out of the house, particularly women. He even has seen women and men having sex in the backyard.

Columbus police have visited the house on a number of occasions. Search warrants were executed in 2016 and 2017. A confidential informant told narcotics detectives that heroin was being sold out of the home, and an undercover officer bought the drug there in May 2016. However, when officers raided the house that year, they found only a scale and a small amount of marijuana.

The 2017 raid was more successful: Crack cocaine, heroin, marijuana, guns and plenty of cash were seized.

But the rotation of people returned, Nicholas said.

Crystal Nicholas, 43, lives with her father and has watched the neighborhood’s evolution. She said that she and her siblings worried about the safety of their parents because of what was going on nearby.

Columbus police say the process is slow and cumbersome to shut down a place. And to take control of the property in hopes of turning it into something good requires even more time. But that's been made a priority, and commanders and city officials say they are making progress.

Ownership of the house near the Nicholas family has recently changed. No permanent tenant has moved in yet.

In late August, Columbus police SWAT officers raided another nearby house.

"Unfortunately, it just moves from one house to another," Crystal Nicholas said.

Columbus Police Sgt. Fred Brophy talks to a homeless woman at Hilltop Butterfly Garden on Sullivant Avenue in Franklinton on August 29, 2019. The homeless woman was staying in the garden because she had septic feet. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

Signs of hope

The laughter from a crowd of kids echoed down Sullivant on one warm September evening.

Their racing was serious business, the kind of fun found on almost any suburban street on any summer night. A kid gripped a rock to etch a starting line in the middle of the street and then the dozen or so of varying ages and ethnicities raced one another three at a time. Until passing cars finally forced them to move.

The summer fun was happening right across from the Cream & Sugar, which sits near Whitethorne Avenue on the Hilltop. That establishment is a place that Sgt. Brophy admires. Its owner does a terrific job, Brophy said, despite the challenges of the surrounding environment. And it’s not the only place that does.

He regularly visits the Hilltop Butterfly Garden on South Oakley Avenue, just off Sullivant, on his shifts. It's an oasis of color that smells of serenity and hope.

Brophy sees it as a beacon of brighter days ahead.

He was an officer in Columbus’s Weinland Park neighborhood in the 1990s, when it was at its worst. Weinland Park has now been transformed, but it took a years-long, multifaceted approach. That’s what he sees as necessary to revive Sullivant Avenue.

Among the neighborhood’s most pressing needs? Jobs. It was while he worked as a school resource officer at West High School that Brophy first realized how pervasive and generational the drugs and human trafficking are in this part of town. There must be legitimate businesses here where people can work, he said, and ways to foster a greater sense of community.

“This can’t be fixed in one generation,” Brophy said. “We can plant the seeds. And we are. But the institutional poverty perpetuates the fertile soil in which these problems and vices thrive. Just like a farmer, it’s going to take more than one season — once we are committed to solving the problem — for everything to grow.”

Dispatch Data Editor Doug Caruso analyzed data for this report, and Dispatch Reporters Bethany Bruner and Patrick Cooley contributed.